BackgroundThe recruitment of immune system cells into the central nervous system (CNS) has a profound effect on the outcomes of injury and disease. Glia-derived chemoattractants, including chemokines, play a pivotal role in this process. In addition, cytokines and chemokines influence the phenotype of infiltrating immune cells. Depending on the stimuli present in the local milieu, infiltrating macrophages acquire the classically activated M1 or alternatively activated M2 phenotypes. The polarization of macrophages into detrimental M1 versus beneficial M2 phenotypes significantly influences CNS pathophysiology. Earlier studies indicated that a toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) antagonist modulates astrocyte-derived cytokine and chemokine release. However, it is not known whether these molecular changes affect astrocyte-induced chemotaxis and polarization of macrophages. The present studies were undertaken to address these issues.MethodsThe chemotaxis and polarization of mouse peritoneal macrophages by spinal cord astrocytes were evaluated in a Transwell co-culture system. Arrays and ELISA were utilized to quantify chemokines in the conditioned medium (CM) of pure astrocyte cultures. Immunostaining for M1- and M2-specific markers characterized the macrophage phenotype. The percentage of M2 macrophages at the glial scar was determined by stereological approaches in mice sustaining a mid-thoracic spinal cord contusion injury (SCI) and intrathecally treated with oligodeoxynucleotide 2088 (ODN 2088), the TLR9 antagonist. Statistical analyses used two-tailed independent-sample t-test and one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) followed by Tukey’s post hoc test. A p value < 0.05 was considered to be statistically significant.ResultsODN 2088-treated astrocytes significantly increased the chemotaxis of peritoneal macrophages via release of chemokine (C-C motif) ligand 1 (CCL1). Vehicle-treated astrocytes polarized macrophages into the M2 phenotype and ODN 2088-treated astrocytes promoted further M2 polarization. Reduced CCL2 and CCL9 release by astrocytes in response to ODN 2088 facilitated the acquisition of the M2 phenotype, suggesting that CCL2 and CCL9 are negative regulators of M2 polarization. The percentage of M2 macrophages at the glial scar was higher in mice sustaining a SCI and receiving ODN 2088 treatment as compared to vehicle-treated injured controls.ConclusionsTLR9 antagonism could create a favorable environment during SCI by supporting M2 macrophage polarization and chemotaxis via modulation of astrocyte-to-macrophage signals.